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The communications challenges when NIMBY is in play

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Could have seen this coming. So no surprise when I hauled Tuesday's Daily Gleaner out of the mailbox, and there on the front page is the headline “Village upset by proposed rehab centre”.


It concerns the faith-based organization Bridges of Canada finalizing the purchase of a property in Tracy that it plans to convert into a rehabilitation facility to help women suffering from substance abuse to get clean and get their lives together.


But as predictable as night following day, whenever such a facility is proposed, you get the NIMBY thing rearing its ugly head.


And the quotes from the people behind it are similarly predictable. In this case the words comes from a village resident, who is quoted in the Gleaner saying “I am all for rehabilitation, I just feel that Tracy is not the right place for this sort of thing.” Translation – not in my backyard.


Change the name of the community, and that quote is universal. It is trotted out whenever an organization wants to establish a rehabilitation centre or a halfway house or in some cases even low-rental housing.


The communications challenge for the organization is how to handle what has become the inevitable. When do you communicate what you plan to do? Do you hold a public meeting at the first opportunity, or do you wait until it's a done deal?


There's no definitive right or wrong, but there is plenty of case studies that suggest some approaches work better than others, and there is a lot to suggest waiting is better.


At BissettMatheson, we've been involved in doing the communications around a few of these kinds of projects, and have researched many others in developing our communications strategies.


Philosophically, we favour transparency and open communications, but saying this, it is important in these kinds of projects to get your ducks lined up first. This doesn't necessarily mean you wait until the very end, but you do have to be strategic.


Either way though, early or late, there's no guarantee of how smoothly it will go.


When an organization in Moncton was going to open a housing facility for people on the margins, we choose not to go public, but we did have the client meet with all the people in neighbourhood, not to ask permission, but to explain what they were doing, and answer any and all questions as honestly as possible. We felt it important that they heard from the client directly, before they heard about it from others. The result was no NIMBY backlash at all – none. It couldn't have gone better.


But with the building of a subsidized apartment complex in Saint John, despite full transparency our client had a protracted and very public battle with a local NIMBY group that spread to a full-fledged social media war and the threat of lawsuits. It was ugly at times, but in retrospect I don't think there is anything we could have done differently that may have changed that.  The only difference I can determine is that the neighbours in Moncton were reasonable, but the ones in Saint John not so much.


An example closer to home is the subsidized housing apartment building on Main Street in Fredericton North. Just before it opened, somebody tried to muster up opposition by distributing fliers that could best be described as fear-mongering. Luckily, they failed to gain traction.  


In the end, all these projects went ahead, and there were no problems at all.  That is the way these things play out. No matter how much hand-wringing there is over the establishment of these facilities, in the end they become either good neighbours ingrained in their respective communities, or they are forgotten, their work quietly continuing with the neighbours forgetting they are even there.


I have absolutely no doubt this will be the case for Bridges of Canada in Tracy. The only question is how bumpy the ride to get there will be. Perhaps they could have met with the community earlier, but to their credit, Bridges is committed to open communications, and, understandably, they were just waiting for the deal on the property in question to go through.  


This NIMBY thing probably won't go much further, but even if it does, or especially if it does, hopefully we won't lose sight of the fact that what Bridges is proposing here – a facility dedicated to helping women who have fallen victim to alcohol and drugs and the complications therein, including in some cases imprisonment, is desperately needed. Its presence will undoubtedly help the women who find their way there, and because of that, it will make our world a better place. 


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